How to make rustic 3D letters or words for your wedding using garden twigs and cardboard boxes

Words and letters are a common decor item for wedding displays; perhaps for your cake table, top table, a guest book and memory table or larger letters as decor on the edge of the dance floor or at the venue entrance. They can be personalised to your couple initials, your new surname or your first names or more generic wedding terms such as ‘Mr & Mrs’, ‘Just Married’, ‘Happily Ever After’ or ‘Love’. There are plenty of options and possibilities.

For our wedding I chose to DIY our first name initials ‘P&J’ and wanted a natural, nature-based, rustic feel. I also wanted them to be reasonably big – still table sized but more like 40-50cm, rather than the smaller 20cm cardboard ones you can buy in craft shops such as Hobbycraft. I also didn’t want to buy my letter base from one of these craft shops because for what they are they’re really quite expensive and as we buy extensive amounts of things online I knew we had a stash of cardboard boxes looking to be used – far too many for our two house rabbits to make use of! Nothing makes me happier than recycling and reusing and getting a freebie and this DIY had both of those requirements covered!

What you will need

An old cardboard box of an appropriate size for your piece. The strength of your letters is in your cardboard so avoid using a smaller box where you’ll have a bend in the centre of your letter and opt for a bigger box where you can use one side and an entirely flat piece. Amazon are great suppliers for large boxes if you buy enough stuff in one go or large items. I am guilty of this but if I can reuse them then it’s guilt free – right? If you don’t buy large orders online it might be worth a visit to your local supermarket to see if you can obtain some fruit boxes, they usually have these on the end of the checkouts as an alternative to plastic bags and they would work just as well.

Twigs. Lots of them!

Gloves. For twig collecting and cutting.

Secateurs.

A hot glue gun and lots of glue sticks.

Decoration. (if desired!) Obviously your twig letters are decoration in their own right and you might feel that nothing else is needed! If you’d like to add a little something extra this could be in the form of artificial flowers or other decorations such as some fairy lights round the letters/base or edging such as rope or beading?

A base. This could be anything from a couple planks of wood to a log slice or a square or circle piece of acrylic. What you choose is up to you, it just needs to be something which will stabilise your piece so it can stand up by itself and isn’t reliant on leaning against a wall etc. Consider where your pieces will be displayed. Do you need something heavy such as wood to weight them down and help stabilise them, or would you like your base to match other table decorations you have? Is space going to be an issue? If so you might want a narrower base as opposed to a round log slice.

Step one – Making your letters from cardboard

The first thing you’ll need to do is to decide how big you want your letters to be. This decision is potentially governed by how big your cardboard box is. You will need two identical shapes (2D letters) for the back and the front of the letter and then a number of long, thin identically sized strips which will be the surround of your letters. These can be joined together as the frame is assembled. It doesn’t matter too much how long/short these side pieces are but it’s worth bearing in mind that if your letters have lots of curves in, like an S or an O, then you’ll want the entire curve to be one single piece as a join here will be quite clunky. With long straight sections such as on a F, H or N the card strips can be easily joined and will be unnoticeable once your piece is covered in sticks.

Font, back, and side shapes

If you are confident, you can draw your letters out freehand for the back/front. Once you have one, draw round it to create the second so they are identical. If you aren’t happy to draw it freehand, don’t panic! A second option, which might actually be better than the first, would be to find a font you like on the computer and use this. Blow it us to the desired size and print it, then cut the shape out and draw round it on your cardboard before cutting it out as described in the first method.

Tip: I’d recommend quite a blocky, solid font so that it’s nice and easy to add your twigs. If you choose something too delicate it might make it too difficult to add the sticks and the effect of the finished piece might not be as dramatic.

Starting with the back letter, place a line of glue along one of the edges and press down one of the side strips at a 90 degree angle. Hold the piece in place until the glue has dried and cooled. This is particularly important for pieces around curves as they have a tendency to move out of the desired position if not held until they’re firmly set in place. Repeat this processed all the way around the back letter until it resembles the picture below. Join separate side strips using the same method and be sure to hold these firmly in place until the glue has set.

Creating the cardboard shapes

Note: It’s more important that your cardboard strips and sides are firmly fastened than a work of art. You won’t see the base at all once it’s covered in twigs so if you get a little messy with the glue or it oozes out the sides a little this isn’t the end of the world!

Add the front of the letter by quickly placing glue around the edge and then pressing it on to the top of the sides and base piece. Repeat these steps for the remaining letters.

Finished cardboard shapes

Step two – adding your base

I actually did this as the final step but I don’t recommend that! I’d not really considered a need for a base when I started my letters, they stood up reasonably well as cardboard shapes so I just assumed with the twigs covering them they’d be the same. With the twigs, they’re considerably heavier and so even the slightest movement meant they went tumbling one way or another. Usually one toppled into the others causing a domino effect. If you’re planning on writing a word I imagine this would be quite impressive to see, although probably not the impressiveness you’re after! I also had trouble spacing them evenly when I tried to stand them/prop them against something.

I assume this wouldn’t be the case for you even if you did leave adding the base until the end as I’ve mentioned this up front but I had also covered the bottom with twigs and then needed to remove these one by one to add the base which meant I’d wasted time, twigs and needed to trim some overhanging twigs around the sides. Basically, it may well be a waste of time and very annoying if you need to do this step at the end. I certainly found that to be the case!

I made my base from 3 planks of wood I had left over from an old chair bed that had been dismantled. When I started planning our wedding everything became a potential DIY item and nothing could be thrown away 'just in case'! I glued them together using a wood glue - although PVA would work just as well. Once dry, I lightly painted them with white wall paint I had left over. Just enough that they were white but you could still see the wood grain peaking through. This added to the 'rustic' feel I was aiming for.

My glued wood base before painting
My glued wood base before painting.

Step three – Collecting your twigs

How many twigs you require will obviously depend on how big your piece is going to be and how many letters it contains. I found I needed way more than I initially thought I would. Luckily for me our garden is surrounded by large trees so I was able to pop out frequently and replenish my stocks. A nice alternative would be to take a walk in a rural area, such as a canal or river or in a woodland, with a bag to fill as you go – or a trolley if you’re keen? Perhaps rope some kiddies in to help you gather them up more quickly!

I’d recommend giving any gathered twigs a wash when you get home just to make sure they’re free from germs and bugs they might have picked up in the wild. Then you’ll need to leave them to dry for a bit of time before you begin your crafting. If you’re able to bring them into the house this will speed the drying process up – but that’s dependant on how keen you are on having a bucket of twigs living in your house for a short time. A shed or garage would work if that’s not a favoured option but without heating it may take them a little longer to dry out.

I found I preferred to have twigs of lots of different tree species for my piece. It meant that when I was placing them there was variation in the shades of brown, type of bark, some had slight green algal or lichen growth, some had buds forming etc which gave the piece texture and kept it interesting. It also meant I wasn’t constrained on a single twig species in my searches which could be a bit of a nightmare given how many you need!

Step Four – Preparing and gluing your twigs

There are a few options for how you place your twigs onto your piece. You may choose to align your twigs in horizontal lines regardless of the shape of the letter and any curves it may contain. Alternatively, you may want to curve the positioning of the twigs to flow with the shape and curves of the letter. I went with the curve of the letter as I felt this flow was nicer but the choice is really personal preference. It’s probably more straightforward to follow straight horizontal lines as you won’t have tricky corners to navigate but the downside is that you will likely need to cut every twig individually to the right length – unless you’re working on a H or a J or something which has a reasonable amount of symmetry.

Twig positioning
Options for twig positioning. Left, the twigs flow with the shape of the letter. Right, the twigs are all horizontal

I began by measuring and cutting the twigs to the desired size in batches. I found it was much more time effective to focus on just cutting twigs and then just gluing them onto the frame. It also means you have a container of twigs from different species of tree so you can choose the varying ones as you go along. Otherwise you’ll need to keep changing between different twigs every time you stick one down which will be quite time consuming – and in my opinion, annoying! If you are using the same type of twig this may matter less, although you’ll still likely want to vary things because the branches will all be different thicknesses, ages and conditions. For example you wouldn’t want your letter to be four lines of an older thick twig covered in lichen and then four lines of a younger, skinny twig.

I also cut each twig slightly longer than I thought necessary. It sounds counter intuitive but this reduced my waste. It’s better to cut every stick slightly smaller as you stick them down than to waste a portion of your cut twigs because they’re marginally too short.

I had three containers when making my letters; one of the raw twigs I’d collected; one of the twigs roughly cut to size and; one of the off-cuts which were too small for the bit I was working on. These were either pieces I’d cut off when I had resized my twigs to glue them into place or were the end of a twig which wasn’t quite long enough to make it into the second tub for pieces of the chosen size.

Note: The off-cuts aren’t waste! They’re useful when it comes to sticking down the shorter side pieces or to fill gaps in your piece, such as when you glue round a corner and need pieces of different sizes. If you’re lazy and/or starting to run out of twigs you could also combine two off-cuts to create a piece long enough to use as a whole twig. I did this a few times on the back of my letters – shhh, don’t tell!

Tip: If you need to trim your sticks, do this before you stick them down. Once set, the glue is quite brittle and so the twigs are liable to come away from the base under the pressure of the secateurs. It’s no great problem if they do come away from the base though as you can just re-glue them down. It might mean you’re doing some of the work twice.

When gluing your twigs on to your cardboard frame it’s best to start working on the front of each letter first. This will be the main focus of your piece and so naturally you’ll want this section to look the best. If you start with the sides then it’s likely that these pieces will be longer and the round ends of the twigs will be visible from the front of your finished piece. By starting with the front, these twigs can cut to overhang the edge of the cardboard frame slightly at each end and you can then neatly slot the side twigs into place one by one at the end. Once you’ve covered the front, repeat the same process for the back so they look similar. Then repeat the same process for the sides. These twigs will likely need the most tweaks to make them fit neatly into the space available due to the thickness of the front and back twigs and the overhang.

Tackling the corners!

The corners or curves of the letters are the trickiest bit – very unfortunate if you’re an O name! In the tight corner of the curve I placed a series of the full sized twigs which then fell at intervals around the longer side of the curve, like a fan. I then went back with shorter twigs, the off-cuts I mentioned earlier, and filled in these gaps to complete the corner.

Twigs flow around a corner
Example of how twigs can be placed to flow around a corner.
Close up of rustic 3d letter
Close up of the bottom of the 'J' I made with the twigs moving round the corner. Note that up close you can see the cardboard and the glue but it's not at all noticeable on the final piece

Step five – adding your decoration

This step is optional depending on the finished result you’re after. I optioned for some ivory and pink paper flowers which I picked up for less than a fiver from Country Baskets. You could use foam or silk flowers if you’d prefer or artificial foliage such as an ivy. If flowers aren’t your thing you could consider adding fairy lights, rope, ribbon or a string beading to edge your letters. An alternative, if you’re happy with your letters would be to just decorate your base. Perhaps adding some moss, some material or some fairy lights here. It’s entirely up to you!

3D rustic letters with decoration
3D rustic letters with decoration close up

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